Mikhail Gromov followed up on this success by flying 6,305 miles to San Jacinto, California.

Though the final flight, of Levanevsky, ended with a disastrous crash, Russia's aviation exploits remained symbols of personal heroism and national achievement.

Arctic researchers, explorers, and scientists have remained prominent public figures ever since. In the surge of Russian Arctic research efforts over the last decade, there are clear and conscious echoes of the heroism and adventure of the Soviet Arctic in the 1930s.

Referring to the 2003 establishment of North Pole-32, Putin declared: "It is very important that after a break of 12 years, Russian scientists return to the North Pole to continue the remarkable traditions of the legendary polar explorers."

Chilingarov's Arctic endeavors (and showmanship) and the reestablishment of the North Pole drift research stations (now North Pole-39) reflect the ongoing Russian attachment to Arctic research and exploration, the lionization of the Arctic explorer (even in catastrophe), and the special place that the Arctic holds in the Russian heart and spirit.

Adieu Polar Bears: Climate Change and the Arctic's Disappearing Ice

Global climate change offers a rapidly changing landscape for today's generation of Russian Arctic specialists, and is affecting the Arctic region disproportionately. The most recent reports indicate that the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

Over roughly the past 20 years, the summer ice sheet's cover shrunk by more than 20 percent and has thinned significantly. According to a 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, that decrease is expected to at least double by 2050.

A recent report commissioned by Lloyds noted: "In September 2011, the month when Arctic sea ice extent is typically at its lowest, ice coverage fell to a low of 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles), some 2.38 million square kilometers less than the 1979–2000 average."

Predictions are constantly changing—and vary from one scientific group to another—but observations consistently show an acceleration of the melting of sea ice far greater than anyone imagined even a few years ago.

A 2004 report compiled by 250 scientists at the request of the Arctic Council stated that Arctic sea ice could completely disappear as early as 2070. Many studies now suggest that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free for a portion of the summer as soon as 2030.

Just this past June, scientists witnessed in the Arctic an "enormous, off-the-charts" bloom of phytoplankton—something so unusual that scientists, according to Paul Bontempi of NASA, "never, ever could have anticipated [it] in a million years."

Such unpredictability, rather than reining in aspirations in the Arctic, has created even more incentive for the five countries in the race to the Arctic.

An Ocean of Riches?

The A-5 countries have begun seeking profits from the disappearing ice. The opportunities for economic gain appear clearest in resource development (especially extractable resources such as oil and natural gas) and shipping.

According to 2008 U.S. Geological Survey data, the Arctic contains some 412.2 billion barrels of oil and oil equivalent: an "estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids."

These amounts represent about 30% of the estimated undiscovered natural gas (approximately equal to Russia's proven natural gas reserves today) and 13% of the global estimated undiscovered oil (about three times the U.S.'s proven oil reserves currently).

Russian sources put the resource potential much higher than the USGS: Arctic-Ocean territory claimed by the Russian government could contain as much as 568 billion barrels of oil and oil equivalent, they believe. While this data is only speculative, it is more than twice the oil reserves of 260 billion barrels in Saudi Arabia, the owners of the world's largest proven reserves.

In 2007, the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies reinforced these higher numbers, asserting that "Russia's extractable offshore hydrocarbon resources are approximately 100 billion tonnes (about 740 billion BOE), 80 percent of which are located in the Arctic."

These high estimates of energy potential make it clear that the melting ice might make this region into a new Gulf of Mexico, ripe for offshore drilling. Experts also believe that the Arctic region contains diamonds, gold, tin, manganese, nickel, lead and platinum, among other minerals.

And the irony is lost on no one that fossil fuels—a primary culprit of global climate change—will be a windfall of the melting ice.

Shipping: The Northern Sea Route

The potential wealth of the Arctic also lies in the possibility of a revolution in shipping.

For Russia, the decrease in Arctic summer ice has begun to open up the NSR for a larger volume of transport over a longer part of the summer (now eight or more weeks of the year). Shipping traffic rose rapidly in 2010 and 2011, with another likely increase in 2012.

Travel along the NSR (as across Canada's Northwest Passage) saves an average of about 5,000 miles compared to current routes.

To take one example, travel from Murmansk in Russia to Yokohama, Japan would save approximately 20.5 days of travel via the NSR versus taking the existing route through the Suez Canal (only 5750 nautical miles versus 12,730 Nm)

When the Vladimir Tikhonov made its historic voyage through the NSR in summer of 2011—at 162,000 tonnes, by far the largest ship ever to navigate the northern waters—it reduced the distance travelled from Murmansk to Thailand by 40% and cut off about a week from the time it would have taken to travel the usual route through the Suez Canal.

If summer Arctic ice were to disappear entirely, the passage that would then open up directly over the North Pole would save an average of 8,000 miles.

Although commercially viable trade across the NSR is likely as many as 15-20 years away, Russia is already asserting its claim to the northern seaways and the ocean's economic benefits.

The NSR would make it cheaper and more efficient for Russia to move its mineral and fossil fuel resources, making the Arctic a "global energy corridor" or a "floating pipeline" of Russian oil and gas, as analysts have described it.

Russia is also investing heavily in shipping services and infrastructure in the north in the hopes of reaping profit from others transporting their goods through the region: through levies, fees, permits, shipping re-supply stations, and ice breaking (with average escort cost through the Arctic currently at $200,000).

Russia is banking on shippers around the world realizing the economic benefit of the NSR. "I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality," Putin said in 2011. "States and private companies who choose the Arctic trade routes will undoubtedly reap economic advantages."

The opening of regular navigation across the NSR would also permit Russia more easily to defend its extensive coastline and eastern shores by allowing the navy to move ships from one end to the other without having to go the long way around through Suez.

There are obstacles to the northern shipping route, however. Even with rapid warming, there still remains ice cover for large parts of the year, requiring expensive ice breakers, and the northern ice currents are legendarily difficult to navigate. Consumer markets do not tolerate the uncertainty of exactly when the shipping season will start.

And there are already strong environmental movements focused on protecting the relatively pristine Arctic waters from the oil spills and other pollution problems that are sure to follow in the wake of increased transport.

LOST at Sea

Russian interest in the Arctic Sea, as for the other four A-5 states, has also been pushed forward at an accelerated pace because of the UNCLOS treaty and its provisions, which were adopted in 1982 after a decade of negotiations. Among the many provisions in this "constitution for the oceans," the treaty established just how far the jurisdictional rights of each sovereign state extend into the ocean.

All states are granted a 12 Nm territorial limit and a 200 Nm (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in which a state has rights over the water, fish, and any seabed resources.

UNCLOS also permits countries to extend their EEZ seaward to a maximum of 350 Nm if the continental shelf stretching out from the country reaches beyond the 200-Nm limit. UNCLOS defines the continental shelf as the natural prolongation of the land of a particular country that is submerged but not part of the ocean basin.

The treaty also established the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to examine states' claims, making geologists lead players in debates over ocean jurisdiction.

When UNCLOS came into force in 1994 after Guyana became the 60th country to ratify (currently 162 nations and the European Community, but not the United States, have ratified), only the A-5 countries had claims in the Arctic Ocean under the treaty. The North Pole itself and a great deal of the area around it were initially left unclaimed, an international zone.

After ratifying in 1997, the Russian government and scientific community submitted a petition to the CLCS in 2001 that proposed a massive increase in Russia's claim.

The report asserted that the underwater, 1,800 km Lomonosov Ridge was part of Russia's continental shelf, an extension of the Siberian shelf, and that Russia's claimable limits should be delineated from this geographic formation.

The CLCS neither accepted nor denied the Russian claim but asked for further research and a revised resubmission: a request that prompted the 2007 expedition that dropped the flag, among many others over the past few years. Russia is expected to resubmit in 2012.

The debate over just what defines a continental shelf geologically has huge ramifications. If the Russian claim ultimately succeeds, it would result in the accession of more than 1.2 million square kilometers to Russian Arctic sovereignty. Or, as the Oxford Institute noted in 2007, "If Moscow is successful in its bid for more Arctic territories, its hydrocarbon share could increase by at least 10 billion tonnes (74 BOE) or two-thirds of the global annual energy consumption."

The Russian 2007 expedition found, perhaps not unexpectedly, "that the crust structure of the Lomonosov Ridge corresponds to the world analogues of the continental crust, and it is therefore part of the Russian Federation's adjacent continental shelf."

The Russian claim is but the first of many coming out of the A-5 countries. Each country has a decade after ratification to submit claims for revised delimitation of sovereignty.

However, there is an increasing rush to get the claims in for fear that the early bird will get the worm. The Russians had hoped that by submitting early, the boundaries of their EEZ might have been settled before anyone else thought to get in the race. The fact that the United States still has not ratified UNCLOS has left them out of any debates and deliberations.

Both Canada and Denmark, which have until 2013 and 2014 respectively to submit their petitions to CLCS, claim that the Lomonosov ridge is in fact an extension of their continental shelves, and they have sent their own teams of scientists to gather proof. Canada has also indicated that it will assert that the Alpha ridge is part of their continental shelf off Ellsmere Island. In 2006, Norway too handed in an official submission for reconfiguration of its Arctic Ocean sovereignty.

At the same time, there are other contestations among other A-5 countries. Canada and Denmark continue to spar politely over which controls tiny, uninhabited Hans Island. The U.S. and Canada remain locked in a debate whether the Northwest Passage represents Canada's internal waters or an international strait.

Since the early 1970s, the U.S. has flouted Canadian sovereignty claims to these waters by sending through its vessels (especially submerged nuclear submarines during the Cold War). Now, the question also revolves around shipping and who might have greater control of the Beaufort Sea and its potential hydrocarbon riches.

The CLCS is not likely to resolve these issues any time soon, considering its backlog of submissions and the appeals and arbitration that will surely follow.

Cooperation or Conflict in the Arctic Future

For all of the potential international tensions of this race for the Arctic—and the chest beating surrounding the 2007 flag planting at the North Pole—cooperation seems a more likely future path for the A-5 in the delimitation of sovereignty in the Arctic.

Given the potential for all A-5 countries to profit from the changing Arctic and the very significant difficulties and vast expense of resource extraction and shipping, there is incentive to work together to the mutual profit of all.

As the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted in a 2012 report: "a growing military and paramilitary presence in the Arctic may be beneficial for regional stability rather than detrimental. This is because the various littoral countries already share strategic goals in the High North: to expand trade, protect the environment, extract resources and police new sea areas."

Russia' ambassador for Arctic Affairs, Anton Vasiliev, pushes the cooperation approach. In a recent comment, he played off the forbidding climate, saying, "You cannot survive alone in the Arctic: this is perhaps true for countries as well as individuals."

So far, all parties have been willing to work through existing transnational legal structures and organizations. They are content to follow the rules of the UNCLOS treaty, and are not acting unilaterally. The Arctic Council's first binding agreement was a multinational search and rescue protocol.

Notably, the possibility of great riches has offered incentive for countries to work out their differences. In 2010, after forty years of quarreling, Norway and Russia agreed to a new border in the Barents Sea that will facilitate oil and gas work for both countries.

In April, 2012, Russia's Rosneft completed terms with ExxonMobil to invest as much as $500 billion in developing offshore reserves in Russian Arctic sea areas. Russia recently granted permission for the first shipment of liquefied natural gas from Norway to travel across the NSR.

Each country has different skills and resources to share: Russia, for example, will benefit from access to Norwegian oil companies' state-of-the-art deep-water drilling technologies, while Norway will rely on Russia for access to the NSR to transport its hydrocarbons east.

Several countries are working together in bilateral research expeditions to explore the geological structures of the ocean floor. Even the 2007 MIR descent to the seabed with its Russian flag had American, Australian, and Swedish backing, organization, and participants.

Moreover, all the A-5 countries have a vested interest in maintaining the cooperative terms of UNCLOS to ensure that no other countries can push their way into the potential Arctic bonanza.

The hubbub following the Russian flag planting led to the Ilulissat Declaration (2008), named for the town in Greenland where representatives of the A-5 met. One of the chief goals of the meeting was to ensure "the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims" and that no other countries try to change the rules of the game.

The European Union, certain African countries, and others have argued that the Arctic is a unique situation and should not be governed by UNCLOS; that the ocean should be protected under international ownership because of the rich and generally pristine waters.

In response, the host of the Ilulissat conference, Per Stig Møller, challenged "the assumption by some that there is a need for a new legal regime for the Arctic Ocean. I do not see such a need, as we have international law, we have the Law of the Sea, which already provide us with a comprehensive legal regime."

In the end, cooperation or not, it bears noting that in this "race for the Arctic" few leaders, analysts, and investors are thinking much about the primary stakeholders in the Arctic world: the indigenous peoples who have inhabited the Arctic region for generations and the native fauna and flora. The destruction of the habitats and cultures of these people and other living creatures would be a high price to pay for whatever hydrocarbons and northern shipping the warming Arctic might offer.